Cleveland and playoff heartbreak often go hand-in-hand, and the Browns’ latest postseason loss was no exception.
It’s easy to harp on Rashard Higgins’ fumble out of the end zone in the first half after a controversial hit by Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen and label it “The Touchback.” It’s easy to wonder how the defense allowed backup quarterback Chad Henne’s third-down scramble and ensuing fourth-and-1 conversion to Tyreek Hill that closed out Kansas City’s 22-17 victory in the AFC divisional playoffs on Sunday.
That type of playoff pain now runs through at least three generations of fans since the franchise’s last NFL championship in 1964.
Here is the alternative viewpoint: Cleveland proved it belonged on this stage, and the franchise will be back on it in the near future under coach Kevin Stefanski. Sunday was a learning experience, and the Browns will benefit from it in the next few seasons.
The biggest lesson? Cleveland did not take advantage of an opportunity to upset the defending Super Bowl champions when Patrick Mahomes left the game with a concussion.
The Browns had the ball with eight minutes left and trailing by five after Karl Joseph intercepted an ill-advised pass from Henne into the end zone. They then ran six plays, burned a timeout and faced a fourth-and-9 from their 32-yard line with 4:19 remaining. Stefanski opted to punt, and that will be the decision that maybe sticks the longest.
Stefanski might win NFL Coach of the Year, but the call gave Reid — who was dogged through 21 seasons as a head coach for not winning a Super Bowl before last season — the advantage right back.
It turned into a giant missed opportunity. That is how slim the margin for error is in the postseason.
Henne made two big plays, a third-and-14 scramble and a veteran move on fourth-and-1 to snap the ball from his 48. Henne, who lost four straight games to Ohio State with Michigan from 2004-07, got some twisted, long-awaited payback in the pros.
Yeah, that’s going to hurt in Cleveland. It’s supposed to hurt. It’s the kind of pain the franchise hasn’t felt since the 1985 season. That’s when the Dolphins rallied from a 21-3 deficit behind Dan Marino for a 24-21 victory in the AFC divisional playoffs on Jan. 4, 1986.
The Browns went to the AFC championship game three of the next four seasons, where they experienced next-level heartache at the hands of the Broncos. This loss, while painful, is nowhere near at that level for the second- and third-generation die-hards.
Can this generation’s Cleveland team get to that level?
There should be reason for optimism. Baker Mayfield turned the corner in his third season. Stefanski maximized the quarterback’s abilities after Odell Beckham Jr.’s season-ending injury, and the tandem of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt felt like Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner all over again. Mayfield and Chubb have one year left on their respective contracts, and Hunt has two years remaining.
Mayfield will learn from this, too. He finished 23 of 37 for 204 yards, a TD and an interception the Chiefs failed to capitalize on, but he was also just 12 of 20 for 70 yards in the second half. The Browns rushed for just 18 yards in the first half; they finished with 112.
Myles Garrett, who had a sack on the play before Henne’s scramble, is locked in through 2026. He had 12 sacks this season and will continue to lead a defense that needs to improve on the back end around cornerback Denzel Ward. The unit could not get that one stop in the end, but that, too, is part of the playoff process.
Cleveland is no longer a joke. It was the last team left standing in the AFC playoffs among their divisional brethren, even if their loss came just one day after the Bills bounced the Ravens. The Steelers have more offseason questions than the Browns after their turnover-laced implosion in the wild-card round, and the Bengals are a few steps behind as they rebuild around No. 1 pick Joe Burrow.
Thank Stefanski for that. He’s the franchise’s modern-day Marty Schottenheimer, and he proved it in an impossibly difficult 2020 season. Stefanski will learn from his decision, and the Browns should evolve. Cleveland will be picked to win the AFC North in 2021, and unlike in 2019, that prediction has substance.
Of course, nobody will want to talk about that for the next 48 hours. Cleveland fans will lament the helmet-to-helmet hit on Higgins and the fumble-out-of-the-end-zone rule. They will wonder how Henne made that first down happen, and they will question Stefanski for his decision on fourth-and-9.
They shouldn’t have to dwell on those forever. That’s another part of the playoff process, and for a franchise that knows all too well “there’s always next year,” those prospects will be far more exciting when the pain subsides, especially when they watch their Great Lakes cousins in Buffalo take a swing at Kansas City in the AFC championship game.
This hurts, but it’s a different kind of pain. It should come with knowing that more playoff excitement is in the near future.
Success will be hand-in-hand soon enough.